KLASSEN ON BOOKS - December 2015 - By John Klassen (Review)


 John Klassen


Kamel Daoud

Daoud (1970-) is an Algerian writer and journalist. The Meursault Investigation is his first novel.


The Meursault Investigation

It is a bold writer who takes an acknowledged classic, Camus's The Stranger (aka The Outsider) and writes a novel that gives the other side of the story as told by the brother of the man who is murdered in the Camus book. 


Daoud does it well. First, by giving the murdered man a name. In Camus, he is always referred to as just "the Arab", but the narrator of Daoud's story, Harun, telling his story as an older man, identifies him as his brother, Musa. Something as simple as a name recognizes a common humanity and elevates the impact of the tragedy of the murder. Through Harun, we learn something of Musa as an individual with life, work, personality, interests, family...all snatched away in an instant in the broiling sun on a beach that no longer exists. 


The novel is more about Harun's life in the decades that have passed since the murder.  The  event has completely overshadowed, determined, and shaped Harun's life and relationships, especially with his mother who spends her life mourning and martyred for the loss of her son, seeking witnesses and testimonies and documents to try to puzzle-out the "why" of the tragedy. But of course, there is no "why", no explanation. In Daoud's novel there is not even a body. In Camus nothing is said about the disposal or mourning or burial of "the Arab"; in Daoud the body has simply vanished thus compounding the deep disorientation and loss. 


Daoud's goal is broader than just a clever re-telling of the Camus story from the angle of the victims, i.e. the murdered man and the ripple effects through the lives of Harun and his mother. Musa becomes a metaphor for all the nameless, marginalized, forgotten people in the cauldron of colonialism and who, more broadly, have always existed, and continue to exist, in all societies.  Some, like Musa, are murdered, others are killed in wars and conflicts, and some are "killed" by simply being passed over in silence and forgetfulness--those who are invisible because they are different in colour, class, nationality, religion, sex, age or whatever pigeon-hole is used to classify the "other". Harun says he wants to "speak in the place of the dead man", but in so doing, he speaks to humanity. 


Harun is decidedly anti-religion which does not serve him well in the increasingly Islamic society that follows independence from France.  He abhors religions: "All of them! Because they falsify the weight of the world", and he applies a novel metaphor: "As far as I'm concerned, religion is public transportation I never use. This God--I like traveling in his direction, on foot if necessary, but I don't want to take an organized trip."


A number of themes weave through the novel. One is the nature of language in structuring the world as enabler of expression and insulator from ideas. Harun learned French because his mother's Arabic is, "...rich, full of imagery, vitality, sudden jolts, and improvisations, but not too big on precision...I had to learn a language other than that one...Books and your hero's language gradually enabled me to name things differently and to organize the world with my own words."


The extension of language is the ability to present it in writing and Harun is full of admiration for how Camus achieved this: "I knew your hero's genius: the ability to tear open the common, everyday language and emerge on the other side, where a more devastating language is waiting to narrate the world in another way. That's it! The reason why your hero tells the story of my brother's murder so well is that he'd reached a new territory, a language that was unknown and grew more powerful in his embrace, the words like pitilessly carved stones, a language as naked as Euclidian geometry."


Memory is critical. As Harun says in an opening line in the book, "I've rehashed this story in my head so often, I almost can't remember it anymore."  The past frames and validates the present, but the past is continually reshaped by the mutability of memory, aside from any deliberate attempts to reframe it to justify actions and experiences. So, where does 'truth' lie? In speaking of a principal character in Camus, Harun says, "...I wonder if he ever existed. Just as I've come to doubt the time of the killing, the presence of salt in the killer's eyes, and even, sometimes, my brother Musa's very existence."  The amorphous and sometimes manufactured natures of 'fact' and 'truth' pervade the novel, and life.


Daoud blurs the lines between fiction and reality. The books by Camus and Daoud are stories that take place, "somewhere in someone's head, in mine and yours and in the heads of people like you. In a sort of beyond." But at times Daoud reads almost like a report as Harun rejects key points in the Camus story as fabrications or unproven, and talks about the trial of Musa's killer as if it were a real event. The blurring of lines is interesting and gives a sense of verisimilitude to the stories.  As do Daoud's critical comments on modern Algeria itself, from the "oil wells and their surrounding architecture of wholesale relocation; and finally the shantytowns" to Algiers loathed for, "the monstrous chewing sound it makes, its stench of rotten vegetables and rancid oil!" Nor does he spare societal norms in modern Algeria, especially the pressure to conform to conservative Islam, and the disappearance of a type of woman: "free, brash, disobedient, aware of their body as a gift, not as a sin or a shame."  Little wonder that Daoud has come into conflict with conservative religious authorities in Algeria.


Finally, Daoud's comment on the gratuitousness of death, a phrase that he uses more than once and which fits with Harun's philosophy of life: "the best proof of our absurd existence, my dear friend: Nobody's granted a final day, just an accidental interruption in his life."


I liked the writing which in more sensual than Camus. Camus is the starting point and the lodestar, but this is a book with its own commentary and thought-provoking ideas. For the full flavour, one should read the two books together, Camus first and then Daoud.


Edward Lewis Wallant

Wallant (1926-1962), an American writer, died at 36. He published a number of short stories and wrote four novels, two of which were published posthumously. The Pawnbroker was made into an award-winning movie with Rod Steiger. In 1962, the University of Hartford established the Edward Lewis Wallant award which is presented annually to a writer whose fiction is considered to have significance for American Jews.


The Pawnbroker

The novel is told through the life of Sol Nazerman, once a professor in a university in Poland, a Holocaust survivor, and now the owner of a rundown pawnshop in Harlem in the late 50s, fifteen years after the deaths of his wife and two young children in one of the Nazi death camps. The pawnshop is also a front for money-laundering the profits of a local crime boss.  Physically, Sol is a 'survivor', but emotionally he is blasted and burned, living within a carapace of pain, unable, uninterested and unwilling to form any emotional attachment even when it is offered to him. He lives with, and financially supports, his sister, brother-in-law and their two teenage children in an uneasy household of non-communication. Occasionally he visits and has sex with a woman friend whose father is also a camp survivor now reliving the horrors as he spirals down to death.


One person with whom Sol does have a connection, of sorts, is a young Black man, Jesus Ortiz, working in the pawnshop and keen to learn the business: "Ortiz dazed him with the peculiar beauty of his smile again. There was something dangerous and wild on his smooth face, a look of guile and unpredictable curiosity; and yet, oddly, there was an unnerving quality of volatile innocence there, too....Sol had the vague feeling that there were certain horrors this boy would not commit. In Sol Nazerman's eyes, this was a great deal; there were very few people to whom he attributed even that limitation of evil." Ortiz wants to better his life, but he falls in with three men in a plan to rob Sol who weekly receives a substantial amount of cash from the crime boss. The dramatic tension around Ortiz and this plan drives the plot of the novel and does have the reader on tenterhooks about what could happen.


Incidents of the Holocaust are seen in flashbacks in Sol's dreams and memories and there are only a few in the novel. However, this is very effective because the incidents isolate and thus highlight the moment, deliver an emotionally shattering experience of a world where all norms of civilized, or even just decent, behaviour do not exist, and make one wonder how any person could live, never mind function at all, after such trauma.


So, why read what sounds like such a depressing novel? Because it deals with a human horror that should be known and thought about, because it is wonderfully written, and because in the Harlem slums it unflinchingly portrays a swath and complexity of humanity too easy to ignore in our frenetic, materialist world.


Wallant had a gift for description. "...gaudy little Tangee in a wide-shouldered, checked suit, and Buck White, with his majestic tribesman face of almost pure black, who appeared elemental in his dignity until you noticed the foolish, childish dreaminess of his eyes." "His fresh, youthful face was good-natured but not very mobile or expressive, as though too much animation might belie his alleged delicacy." "George Smith had the face of an old Venetian doge, the features drawn with a silvery-fine pencil, the excesses reproduced in the shallowest, most subtle of creases. Only his eyes mirrored the wrestling starvation." "She glared guiltily at him, her yellow face scoured and worn by petty miseries to a texture that obscured the massive old deformities." Wallant is equally good at describing things as well as people: "...an armchair which leaned swollenly to one side under its faded cretonne covering, like an old sick elephant under shabby regal garments."


And the pawnshop! What a parade of humanity passes through it daily: "On and on they came, shy, sullen, guilty, paying in fear for tiny crimes they had done and were doomed to do, striking out with furtiveness and harshness, sickened with their hereditary curse, weary and ashamed of their small dreams and abandoning the cheap devices they had dreamed with...each filling the Pawnbroker's spirit with rage and disgust as he smelled and saw their ugliness." "...by degrees the harshness dissolved, and the fantastic conglomeration of the shop claimed their unconscious moods. Again they were riven by the complexity, the intricacy of the tools or people's survival. And each, in his own unthinking way, responded to a tiny, sad abrasion in his spirit. Each of them pitied, without knowing he pitied, the pathetic paraphernalia with which humans made walls."


Wallant does not directly draw the pawnshop as metaphor, but I was struck by the overlapping vision of thousands upon thousands of people driven off the fetid cattle cars, clutching their few, pathetic worldly goods that would, in a moment, be taken from them until, naked, they would be herded into the 'showers' and there would be no walls left for them. Each and every person is "in slightly different costume, each enlivened by his own unique choreography." The choreographies comprise individual pasts, experiences, hopes, fears, dreams. Every single person is unique and that is what we miss in parsing large historical movements or moments in a shop. 


Sol is emotionaly and socially bereft: "I do not trust God or politics or newspapers or music or art. I do not trust smiles or clothes or buildings or scenery or smells....I do not trust names. I do not trust expressions or colors or the feel of texture....But most of all I do not trust people and their talk, for they have created hell with that talk, for they have proved they do not deserve to exist for what they are....'You too?' Ortiz asked...I, too."


Sol feels his loss: "God forbid there should be ghosts! He would not have been able to bear that. If there were ghosts, he would have been destroyed, or had been destroyed long ago and was now a ghost himself."  But, like Lear, he cries out, "Ah, leave me my brain at least, do not let me go mad."


Something happens at the end of the book, but the reader should enjoy his/her own frissons of expectation so I will say no more about it. I will say that this is a fine novel that deserves to be read and contemplated.


Tags: John Klassen